How two towns in the Canadian Arctic get their food

Tuktoyaktuk-Tuk-In-Summer
Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.

The other evening, I was sitting in a typical house in Tuktoyaktuk enjoying a meal with an Inuvialuit family as the waves crashed outside. This small hamlet in the Canadian North faces the Arctic Ocean and will soon be the terminus of the only public highway in North America to extend to the coastline of the world’s northernmost sea. Inside the cozy, multigenerational home, mom, dad, children, grandparents (daduk and nanuk), auntie, and uncle sat in the kitchen and living room tearing freshly cooked caribou meat off the bone. Some garnished the dark, grassy meat with sea salt while others doused it in ketchup. I enjoyed my portion salted while sitting across from a young girl who put a whole fistful of tender caribou meat on a slice homemade bread. This being “Tuk,” as locals refer to the town, there are no year-round road connections to the rest of Canada, so store-bought loaves that are fresh rather than frozen are hard to come by. Around town, the yeasty smell of baking bread mixes with the salt tang of the ocean and the dust of the dirt roads.

Over dinner, the girl ate spoonfuls of cornflakes with milk in between bites of her open-faced caribou and ketchup sandwich. The combinations of processed food and country food symbolize the complex ways in which people in the Canadian North eat. In the past fifty years, Aboriginal diets have changed enormously, from relying solely on the land and sea for sustenance to now combining wild foods with store food in sometimes curious ways (think HP sauce with beluga whale). With food insecurity already a widely debated issue in the region, I was intrigued by how people actually do manage to put food on the table.

In Tuk, which has a population of about 900 people, most of whom are Inuvialuit (an Inuit people), there are basically four ways to get food: from the land or sea, the grocery store, the greenhouse, or the food bank. In the 3,000-person town of Inuvik, the government center of the Western Arctic, the options are much the same even though it has a year-round connection via the Dempster Highway to the rest of Canada.

By land or sea

When I asked one man what percentage of their protein comes from the land or sea, he responded, “80 pecent.” In Tuk, a large number of people still hunt, fish, and harvest. Early July is prime time for hunting beluga whales, with the Beaufort Sea population being one of the most stable in the world. A group of men will go out in a boat, travel the 25 kilometers across open water towards Hendrickson Island, and then hopefully catch a beluga whale. The snow-white cetaceans are usually butchered on the island before being brought back to Tuk in more manageable pieces. So far this season, the biggest beluga whale caught measured 14 feet long. Three whales around this size can help meet a large family’s protein needs for a year.

Muktuk
Muktuk – beluga whale skin and blubber – cut up before being boiled.

I got to help lay out boiled squares of muktuk – the blubber and skin of a whale – on pieces of cardboard to dry overnight after being boiled. We protected the meat with a tarp to keep the peckish seagulls away. While setting out the muktuk, I watched one man set a fishing net from shore into the harbor and pull it back a few minutes later, already full of nine whitefish and one crookedback. Two family members gutted and filleted the fish and gave me a taste of raw whitefish roe. Meanwhile in the nearby smokehouse, thin black pieces of beluga whale meat were being smoked over an open fire. The air smelled briny and foresty.

Fish-Hut-Tuk.JPG
A man and his fishing hut, with the Cold-War era DEW Line visible in the background.

The next day, I joined the same family for a “fish fry.” The whitefish caught the previous night were cut up, battered, and deep fried to a crispy perfection. We dipped the fried fish in HP sauce and tartar sauce with mashed potatoes on the side. Not to be forgotten was the beluga whale muktuk, which is also very popular with HP sauce, a condiment originally from the UK that seems much more popular in Canada than in the U.S.

If beluga whales are the taste of summer in Tuk, then salmonberries, or aqpiks, are the taste of fall. Women, and some men, go out to the tundra just south of Tuk to gather the orange berries by the hundreds. One man told me one of his favorite country foods is “aqpiks with cream” – again, a combination of country food and story food only possible in the post-contact era, after Europeans arrived.

Aukpiks-Goose-Eggs
Frozen aqpik (salmonberries) and goose eggs in the background.

At other times during the year, the land provides goose eggs (richer than chicken eggs), geese, ptarmigan, grizzly bear, and polar bear (boiled grizzly bear paws, I’m told, are a real delicacy, while polar bear is overly rich, but bear in general is less widely eaten than it once was). The land also provides caribou, which are best in fall. In summer, one woman told me their sweat makes the meat less tasty, so it’s best to wait for the cooler months to hunt them. Yet caribou hunting has become harder for people living in Tuk due to new boundaries established by the government in an attempt to stabilize the herd’s size, which has been declining recently. Many townspeople I spoke to were angry about the boundaries, claiming that the biologists whose research informed their demarcation didn’t know as much about caribou as the Inuvialuit.

With caribou meat proving harder to obtain off the land, some people have instead turned to buying reindeer meat from the region’s sole, privately managed herd. Buying food – particularly country food – would have been unheard of in previous generations. Even today, sharing remains the norm. The man who brought in Tuk’s first beluga whale of the season told me that he didn’t get to eat much of it because he shared most of it with other people in town. It’s this generous philosophy of helping each other out and sharing meals that allowed me, as an outsider, to essentially strike up a conversation with a person in the street and the next day be invited to a wonderful fish fry with their family.

Fish-Fry
A cozy family fish fry in Tuktoyaktuk.

The grocery store

Food_Prices_Inuvik.jpg

For soda pop, chips, and all the other conveniences of modern food, locals shop at one of two grocery stores in town: Northern or Stanton’s. One local complained to me that Northern makes all their money off of “pop” (soda), with one can costing CAN $1.99. Obesity and diabetes are two modern diseases that have hit Tuk and other Aboriginal communities hard for two reasons: first, the prevalence of high-calorie, high-sugar, high-carb food, and second, a genetic predisposition among Aboriginal peoples to diabetes.

The locally beloved ice cream machine at Stanton’s, which functions when the mix has been delivered (it goes fast on hot summer days, which can reach over 30°C/86°F), and the deep fryer that spits out french fries and chicken strips do nothing to improve access to healthy food. While apples, bananas, and green beans are sometimes impossible to obtain (unless the Fruit Man, who drives a truckload of fresh fruit and vegetables from Vancouver every few weeks, makes an appearance), soda pop and slushies are in no short supply in the Western Arctic. One friend who carries out research in the Mackenzie Delta told me that slushy cups can be found all across the region’s swampy lakes and rivers.

The bulk of Northern and Stanton’s food items have to be flown in during the summertime. Stanton’s charters airplanes sometimes to fly in deliveries. A lot of non-perishable items are brought in over the ice road in winter or by a barge in summer, but that hasn’t come so far this year for a number of supposed reasons. First, the Inuit-owned company that runs the barge, Northern Transportation Company Limited, filed for bankruptcy last year. Second, water levels on the Mackenzie River are low, prohibiting smooth passage for the barge as it makes its way to numerous communities along the river in the Northwest Territories. Some locals rumored that the low water levels are due to the oil sands production in Alberta, which overlaps with part of the Mackenzie River Basin.

Ironically, high water also poses a problem for getting delivery in and out of Inuvik, and by consequence, Tuk. The Dempster Highway connects Inuvik by land to the rest of Canada via a 12 hour drive to Dawson, in Yukon Territory, from which point it’s possible to continue on to Whitehorse and then Edmonton. Most of Inuvik’s groceries come up from Edmonton by truck, and the long and arduous journey by road means that milk costs close to $10 a gallon, while a package of cold cuts is $22.00. And if you want your Cheez-Whiz, you’ll have to dig deep for one jar, which costs $19.29.

Making matters even more difficult for transport, the Dempster has two ferry crossings. The ferry across the Peel River is particularly susceptible to closing due to high water levels. The other week it was closed for five days, meaning that the availability of fresh fruit and produce in Inuvik and Tuk dwindled to a measly amount since trucks couldn’t get through. Worse, yet were the conditions for people stuck on the south side of the Peel River, where it is a two-hour drive to the nearest facilities with a restroom and running water, in Eagle Plains. While traveling up the Dempster towards Inuvik, some friends and I got stuck on that side for 26 hours and had to camp by the road, and that was bad enough.

Dempster-Highway-Peel-River-Ferry-Closed
Not much to do when the ferry is closed on the Peel River in the Dempster Highway.

Still, eventually the ferry re-opened and the produce came up the road to Inuvik.

In Tuk, a lot of individuals I spoke with hope that once the new highway is opened, the price of groceries will drop, helping to reduce the high cost of living. Yet when the road opens, the government will likely stop identifying it as an “isolated northern community.” This means it could lose access to the Canadian government’s Nutrition North (formerly Food Mail) program, which helps to subsidize the high costs of nutritious, perishable items. Whether grocery prices go up or down, then, is anyone’s guess.

The greenhouse

Greenhouse-Tuk
Flowers and kale growing in the small greenhouse in Tuktoyaktuk.

A few years ago, Tuk opened its own greenhouse in front of an abandoned RV park, which itself might be renovated and reopened in anticipation of the forthcoming highway. I peeked inside the quiet greenhouse, where numerous heads of kale were sprouting up robustly from the soil. Although the greenhouse is well-built, it’s about a 15 minute walk from the center of town and residents have to carry or truck their own water in since it has no connection to the utilidor. One local resident told me that instead, the greenhouse has inspired people to start their own mini-greenhouses in their own backyards.

Inuvik-Greenhouse
The enormous greenhouse inside the old hockey rink in Inuvik.

Whereas Tuk’s grocery stores are surprisingly comparable to those in Inuvik despite the lack of a permanent road connection, Inuvik’s greenhouse dwarfs Tuk’s. Housed in a former hockey rink, the greenhouse sports a huge number of plots. During the short summer growing season, they provide a critical source of fresh fruits and vegetables for people living in a town where these are in short supply. Even when lettuce or tomatoes do arrive from the south, they’re often wilted or overripe. The local school has four plots, while the homeless shelter also has one in addition to the numerous families and individuals around town who take advantage of the greenhouse. One plot costs $75 for the season. It includes water and soil comes from the nearby golf-course, though it’s not the most nutrient-rich. Upstairs from the ground-level plots on the forming viewing level of the hockey rink, the greenhouse grows colorful flowers, vegetables, and other plants for sale. Some of the products are sold at the weekly Arctic Farmer’s Market in the center of town. From time to time, yoga classes, volunteer dinners, and even a rhubarb social have even been held up on the former viewing deck.

With the 24-hour daylight in Inuvik, which is north of the Arctic Circle, plants grow in record time. This helps to compensate for the short growing season, which lasts from May to September. People grow everything from 40 types of tomatoes to purple cauliflower to rhubarb in the greenhouse, and nearly all of them appear to sprout before your eyes.

I asked one person who works in the greenhouse whether climate change and warming temperatures have had any effect on plants’ ability to grow. She said that more important has been the new roof, demonstrating the underlying importance of solid infrastructure in the modern Arctic. Since the greenhouse has no insulation, it has to shut down in winter. If this were remedied, one volunteer said, “It would be a dream to have the greenhouse year-round.”

The food bank

Both Tuk and Inuvik have food banks, which help fill in the gaps in people’s food supply. One volunteer I spoke to says that sometimes, people drive up in shiny new Ford F-150 trucks and ask for a box of food. But you can’t say no to them, for you never know what their situation is. In Tuk, the food bank is run out by the local Roman Catholic church, which has an active community in town. In both instances, the food bank also provides a nice weekly gathering spot for people. At the food bank in Inuvik, I stood inside as people came in to pick up a box filled with a can of Irish stew, a box of pasteurized milk, potatoes, an onion, and a couple of other cans of vegetables. In Tuk, I watched a woman exchange a large bag of whole-wheat flour for all-purpose flour.

All of these rather basic items which we take for granted in the south can be exorbitantly expensive in northern grocery stores. Below are a few examples of the prices of various items at a grocery store in Inuvik. Some southerners may wonder why they have to subsidize the cost of milk, cheese, and cold cuts going to the North. But when the Canadian government forcibly settled many in the North in the name of sovereignty decades ago, it was likely inevitable that Northerners, moving into insulated homes and driving motorized skidoos, would develop a taste for dairy, sugar, salt, and all the other foods we enjoy in the South.

If the Canadian government wants to continue to claim sovereignty over the North, supplying fresh milk at reasonable prices is just one of the costs it must bear. “Bread and circuses” is no trivial matter in the Canadian Arctic. It might just be rephrased as “milk and jamborees,” in reference to the festivals that communities throw every winter.

Plus, there is a misconception that hunting and gathering is free: it’s not. Gas costs money, bullets cost money, boats and quads cost money – and most of all, hunting takes a lot of time. If Aboriginal peoples are gainfully employed in the wage economy, they have less time to devote to traditional hunting and gathering activities. The grocery store instead forms part of the routine, just as it does for people in the south. If anything, Northerners are more resilient and flexible than many of us living in the south. While we search for coupons to reduce our costs, they go out and hunt and gather and fish, grow their own plants in their greenhouses, and turn to the food bank in time of need.

Strawberries-Inuvik-Greenhouse
Strawberries grow in the Inuvik Greenhouse.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *